Legacies Hear These Activists on Gabriel’s Failed Slave Rebellion
Richmond could offer a bold challenge to historical narratives about the South, the Confederacy, and American slavery.
On a humid evening near the end of August 2017, around fifty people gathered at the African Burial Ground in Richmond, Virginia, to remember a man largely forgotten in American history. They’d come to remember Gabriel, an 18th century enslaved blacksmith, and his rebellion, one of the most extensive conspiracies by enslaved African Americans against slavery. That day last year was the 217th anniversary of the failed uprising.
A little more than two miles west stand monuments to another failed rebellion. One of Richmond’s most famous streets, Monument Avenue, boasts soaring statues of Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and other icons of the Lost Cause. Though these statues dominate much of the physical landscape of Richmond, they are just a few of the Confederate monuments that shape the city’s sense of place, and tell its story to visitors and citizens alike.
Beginning in the wake of the Civil War and Reconstruction, white Southerners used public memorials like these to write their narrative of the War into the physical landscapes of cities. In Richmond, that narrative erased both the Confederacy’s stated aims and the city’s role in the slave trade. Instead, it rebranded the southern states’ failed rebellion to maintain and expand slavery as a more sanitized version of the war, the Lost Cause, in which the Confederacy fought solely to defend what was often called “the Southern way of life.”
But a reckoning has come. The Confederate flag no longer flies over the South Carolina S tate H ouse grounds. Cities like Memphis, New Orleans, and Charlottesville have removed, shrouded, or recontextualized their Confederate monuments.
In a May 2017 speech in which he called the Lost Cause a “cult” and linked his city’s Confederate monuments to terrorism and enslavement, New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu explained why the city had removed several Confederate statues. Referencing the lack of “prominent markers on public land to remember the lynchings or the slave blocks,” and what he called the “self-appointed defenders of history and the monuments” Landrieu said, “they are eerily silent on what amounts to this historical malfeasance, a lie by omission.”
If memorial space is a city’s story, Gabriel’s name in Richmond is a murmur, easy to miss among the louder voices of the Confederacy. But as cities rethink that story, removing flags and statues, Richmond is revising its own story. The city, pushed in part by activists, is challenging the narrative of the Lost Cause that’s written into its memorial cityscape. Gabriel and his rebellion offer one of the strongest voices to challenge what Landrieu called “historical malfeasance.”
In the last few decades, Richmond has made efforts to reckon with its history of slavery. In 2011, the city’s Slave Trail Commission unveiled marks along a walking trail that chronicles Richmond’s central role in the American slave trade. The trail runs through Shockoe Bottom, a part of Richmond that once rivaled New Orleans as the hub of the American slave trade.
From 1830 to 1865, roughly 350,000 people were sold into slavery at Shockoe Bottom. Today the district boasts restaurants, bars, new apartments, and condos. It also contains the African Burial Ground and Lumpkin’s Jail, a place also known as the Devil’s Half Acre, where slave merchants confined and tortured countless men and women. These two sites make up the heart of a proposed memorial park dedicated to telling the story of Richmond’s role in the American slave trade, and the stories of those like Gabriel who fought against it.
As plans progress for the park just minutes away from Monument Avenue, Richmond could offer a bold and necessary challenge to historical narratives about the South, the Confederacy, and American slavery yet.
The late August memorial for Gabriel at the African Burial Ground was led by Ana Edwards, the chair of the Sacred Ground Reclamation Project and a graduate student working with fellow student Brian Riley on a history of the public memory of Gabriel.
“His story remains the underground good story,” Edwards says, explaining why the memory of Gabriel and his rebellion have endured despite existing outside of mainstream historical narratives.
Born in 1776, Gabriel was an enslaved blacksmith who lived just north of Richmond. In 1800, he led a rebellion that stretched from Norfolk to the Blue Ridge foothills. Whispers of the conspiracy spread by word of mouth along Virginia rivers, at religious gatherings. During a time when the United States was still grappling with the fundamental contradiction of a free republic founded on the institution of slavery, the rebels remixed the rhetoric of the American Revolution, planning to march on Richmond under a banner inscribed with the words “Death or Liberty.”
Their plan was as daring as it was complex. On the night of August 30, 1800, a small group of rebels would set fire to Richmond’s riverfront warehouses and mills. The fire would be a carefully laid trap. Gabriel planned to lead two more columns of rebels armed with swords hammered from scythes. While other rebels joined them from the surrounding countryside, Gabriel and his men would meet the exhausted white citizens returning from fighting the fires and deliver the coup de grâce.
After storming the state armory flush with muskets, they would take the state capital and kidnap governor James Monroe. With the capital and the governor as immense bargaining chips, the rebels would, in Gabriel’s words, “dine with the merchants” and negotiate the end of Virginia slavery.
“Gabriel’s Rebellion brings home everything [white Americans in 1800] were afraid of,” says Edwards. Speaking of America today, she says, “The country is living in perpetual contradiction from its origins with both its racism and slavery.”
Virginia would decisively resolve that contradiction in the wake of Gabriel. Torrential storms rolled over Richmond the night the rebellion was to begin, washing out bridges into the city and causing confusion among the rebels. Gabriel delayed the plot by a day, but it was too late. Two conspirators had already betrayed the plot. Governor Monroe was alerted, and he ordered a terrifying crackdown on African Americans in Virginia.
Ultimately, 26 men, including Gabriel, were hanged. There is no record of Gabriel speaking before his execution. But one of the conspirators, whose name was not recorded, made it clear that he saw the rebellion as the logical continuation of the American Revolution’s fight for freedom, drawing a comparison between himself and another of the nation’s founding fathers.
“I have nothing more to offer,” he told the court, “than what General Washington would have had to offer, had he been taken by the British and put to trial.”
Richmond was the center of two failed rebellions. One, however, was written into the physical landscape of the city. But in 2018, if we are to memorialize a lost cause, which rebellion, which story should we choose to tell in our public memorials, in our statues, in the physical space of our cities?
When compared with Richmond’s Confederate iconography, Gabriel’s memory in Richmond is muted. His image and name appear at the African Burial Ground, and a small streetside sign marks the site of his execution. Three more signs stand just outside the city. Bryan Park, where the conspiracy began, has a green “Gabriel Prosser Circle” sign that forcefully joins the last name of Gabriel’s enslaver to his own.
Sacred Ground has spent 14 years fighting to reclaim the Burial Ground and create a 9-acre memorial park in Shockoe Bottom. An artist’s rendering shows what the park might be—open spaces connected by walkways, the skyline on the horizon, an interpretive center, monuments to the many thousand lives that passed through Richmond’s slave markets. And on a wall, a larger-than-life picture of Gabriel.
It’s hard not to think of such a park as a direct answer to Monument Avenue, its narrative of honorable white men, swords in hand, the causes of their war wiped from public memory. The park, says Edwards, begins to “balance those scales.”
“If a bomb went off that wiped out all the people, all you would see in this place is the history of the Confederacy. And that’s, um, not good,” says Edwards, laughing at the understatement. “It didn’t start there. And it didn’t end there.”
As the proposed park winds its way through the city’s bureaucracy, other excluded narratives are entering the broader public memory. There is the Reconciliation Statue, erected in 2007 in Shockoe Bottom, and the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial at the state capitol, unveiled in 2008. This past July a statue of Maggie Walker, an African American teacher and businessperson who was the first woman to charter a bank in the United States, was unveiled in Richmond’s Jackson Ward neighborhood.
Last September, the Reconciliation Statue was vandalized with graffiti and a sticker reading “Confederate states forever,” a reminder of the strong current of resistance to the rewriting of public memory.
A twelve -foot Virginia Emancipation Proclamation and Freedom Monument is scheduled to be installed on Brown’s Island in Richmond, a popular park that hosts concerts and festivals along a particularly scenic stretch of the James River. The statue features a man newly released from shackles, whip marks across his back. Behind him, a woman holds an infant in her arm, a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation raised in her other hand. Ten names and images are featured on the monument’s base. Alongside Nat Turner and Dred Scott is Gabriel’s name.
Gabriel’s and Turner’s inclusion wasn’t without debate. For some, bloodshed—both planned and realized—was a reason to exclude them from the memorial. Such a debate points to a fundamental problem of this kind of public memory: H ow does an institution memorialize revolutionary figures whose goals were to bring down those institutions?
Free Egunfemi is an independent historical curator whose organization Untold RVA uses interactive street art and guerrilla installations to give voice to narratives that have been, as she says, “deliberately submerged.”
“I’m telling [Gabriel’s story] in a different way for a different reason,” she says. “For me, the Gabriel story is that which can inspire self-determined folks to do the good things they were born to do, even when our forward movements trigger some people to try and shut us down or block our progress.”
Egunfemi wheatpastes interactive street art installations throughout Shockoe Bottom, small signs reading “Shockoe Bottom Belongs to the People.” Each sign has a unique phone number you call to hear short recordings of local history. She defines this kind of work as an exercise in tactical urbanism, “high visibility, low – cost disruptions to the racism inherent in Richmond’s commemorative landscape.”
These installations are in stark contrast to the slow-moving public parks and memorials only now gathering the necessary official support. Unlike statues, each marker is small and easy to place. Most important, they don’t require consensus or permission.
“I have fifty-four markers going into Shockoe Bottom that are all interactive,” says Egunfemi. Every Sunday, visitors to Shockoe Bottom can book Untold RVA’s urban exploration experience. “What makes it unique,” she says, “is that every aspect is about the people, for the people, and by the people.”
Egunfemi is keeping Gabriel’s memory alive in the way that it’s been kept alive for more than two hundred years—person to person, largely free from official channels, yet there for anyone who stops to hear his name.
Come August 30, the anniversary of the rebellion, Egunfemi will celebrate as she always does. This year, however, she won’t be at the Burial Ground, the site of his execution. On the anniversary of the day on which Gabriel was to hold America accountable to its own grand narrative, she’ll remember his rebellion with a second-line parade in Highland Park on Richmond’s Northside, close to where Gabriel was born. The parade, says Egunfemi, is part of Gabriel Week, a new observance that she is creating with community partners to, as she says, “honor the bravery of those who fight back against injustice.”
Perhaps this is how narratives change. Statues are pulled down, dismantled by city workers in the middle of the night. This kind of change can seem almost instantaneous. In reality, it’s the reflection of years of voices telling stories that, for far too long, have been ignored, erased, submerged. These stories might be acknowledged with public proclamations etched in granite and bronze, but they are born of a great collection of whispers building to a crescendo.
Volunteers of all ages have already begun making necklaces for Gabriel’s parade, stringing red, black, and green beads to toss to crowds, telling the story of Gabriel. “It’ll be kind of like our version of Mardi Gras,” Egunfemi says. “I think Brother General Gabriel will be pleased.”